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Last Updated: Monday, 15 December, 2003, 16:14 GMT
Naming children for a head start in Africa
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in South Africa reflects on African names and their meanings for the BBC's Africa Live programme.

US comedian, Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby's TV grandchildren are called Winnie and Nelson
In southern Africa if you carry the name Mandela, Sisulu, Tutu, Sobukwe, Luthuli or Samora, you are probably on a winning ticket and will go far. People will sit up and listen.

And moving further north, should you choose to name your child Nkrumah, Nyerere, Lumumba, Selassie or Sankara, he or she will have a head start.

But in that tradition, how come we have not heard of any little Miriam Makebas?

What makes a person is his or her identity, so a name is really very important.
Paul Gisemba, Kenya

Rolihlahla, Nelson Mandela's other name, does not seem to have caught on around the continent. In Xhosa the name translates as making trouble for yourself, bringing things upon yourself or taking things on.

And you could be doing precisely that if you are stuck with a more questionable name, say Mobutu, Bokassa, Savimbi, Kamuzu Banda, or Idi Amin.

Instant name recognition? Sure. But who wants that sort of notoriety connected to one of Africa's disgraced giants?

Fallen Heroes

There is a young lady who goes by the name of Kadzamira - named after Malawi's disgraced former not-quite-first-lady, Cecilia Kadzamira. She probably gets teased - if people remember that far back.

But where are the Anwar Sadats and how many Agostinho Netos are floating about Africa?

Being a legend in life or death does not necessarily mean one's name is bestowed upon future Africans.

Then there are names that are becoming fashionable, like Che, in the style of the legendary Latin American revolutionary, Che Guevara and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Nelson Mandela
Rolihlahla meaning making trouble has not been popular

The South African freedom fighter Steve Biko falls into that category, with his instantly recognisable face emblazoned on t-shirts, caps, posters, bags and badges.

The names of football and pop stars also attract attention. There must be any number of Roger Milla somethings dotted around Africa.

But get this: Elton John Taaibos, which means tough bush in Afrikaans, is a real human being somewhere in South Africa!

And you know the American film star, Bill Cosby who plays Dr Cliff Huxtable? Well his TV grandchildren were named Winnie and Nelson!

Cleopatra did the rounds for a while in honour of the historical Egyptian queen and, of course, the more contemporary, sexy, action-screen-superwoman, Cleopatra Jones.

She of the billowing afro, stiletto-heeled boots, hot pants and leather jackets, she was something!

Others prefer safer zones, going for tried and tested first names. Africa is full of Comfort, Patience, Hope, Faith and Charity.

Literal Names

In Zimbabwe they are more adventurous, but just as literal. Don't be surprised to shake hands with Jealous or Jealous Down - ie put your jealousy aside and admit it!

Suppertime, Petrol, Fingernail, Expedite and Messenger will welcome you to Zimbabwe. Gladness and Lovemore - two favourites - will no doubt be gracious hosts.

Cameroon's Roger Milla
Sporting names are fashionable

But how many people do you know called Loveless? Yup, they exist too. Maybe some have already been named Land Reform Policy or perhaps Equitable Land Re-Distribution.

Africans have even politicised what they are called, with social divisions being marked by local kitchen or house names and Christianor European names.

While many people are given both African and Christian names, increasingly the foreign names are being dropped in favour of local ones. When translated the local names often refer directly to the circumstances of an individual's birth and are more meaningful.

God features prominently in many African names. While Christians generally adopt Bible names, Muslims are often named in various forms after the Prophet Muhammad and other male and female religious and spiritual leaders who feature in the Koran and the Old Testament.

And perhaps in opposition to America's was on Iraq, and earlier on Afghanistan, the number of Osamas and Saddams in Africa seems to have multiplied or at least those are the preferred names people adopt on some radio call-in shows.

And of course there are the pretty names.

Jabulani = Zulu for Happy
Mbali = Zulu for Flower
Palesa = Sesotho for Flower
Nonkululeko = Zulu & Xhosa for Freedom
Nonqubela = Xhosa for Progress

Let us take South Africa for example: Jabulani , Mbali or Palesa are all popular.

Nonkululeko arose during the rampantly defiant struggle years against apartheid in South Africa, though there are fewer of them since liberation. Now Nongqubela is more common.

But perhaps the funniest naming ceremony was the one for the child called Fete Nat (Fete Nationale, in full, in French, marking the public holiday to celebrate Independence Day).

Why "Fete Nat"? Because the parents thought it was a saint's name on the calendar!

And for sheer lyricism, my vote goes to the Yoruba for the name Tokunbo - or Toks for short.

It is given to those conceived abroad - ie: across the sea (okun). Tokunbo now also refers to second hand goods brought in from "across the sea"!


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